Gun point

A couple situations cropped up last week that cast light on children’s views of education.

The first happened with an able class who had a short assessment, something that should have been straightforward. They had been given some days’ notice, and the test had already been deferred once because of missing pupils; there was no excuse for not doing well.

As the test began, four or five pupils owned up that they had not been in the lesson and did not know the subject matter; I asked why they had not copied up. Shrugs. I put them in the neighbouring room to catch up. At the end of the test we peer-marked, and the problems began. Many found the test difficult to mark, and when I looked at the papers, they had not done well on what was basically a simple diagrammatic knowledge test.

I investigated. The original work had been done in a cover lesson a couple of weeks previously and I had not seen the books in the meantime, the intention being to collect them after the test. Then the admissions came: they had done the work mechanically, without thinking about it. Some said they hadn’t understood at the time, though the material was well within their capabilities. Others said they hadn’t completed it (even though it was the first task for that lesson). One wonders what happened during that cover lesson.

But the issue is this: during the whole process, not one pupil asked for help, nor saw fit to tell me that they hadn’t understood, or had not completed the work – even when the test was imminent. They just turned up – and failed.

Even after all these years, there are times when I am left speechless.

The second situation concerned another able class, who were being introduced to a study of Russia (we have decided to humour Mr. Gove…). I ended up telling them about the time I found myself at gunpoint at three in the morning on a train on the Hungarian-Czech border. (I had offered myself as a linguistic go-between for some Japanese tourists whose papers the border-guards did not like; I failed to stop them being thrown off the train…). The pupils’ eyes grew large; I told them that teachers do not just stand in the cupboard each evening and wait for them to return…

Moral of the week: many children do not understand or care half as much about their education as we sometimes credit. I’m not really surprised, and I don’t think we were much different in my day. School was just where you went and learned stuff; at that age there was no bigger picture.

That said, behind the present immaturity I fear there lurks a depth of indifference that was not there in the past. It is not only that children lack the perspective to see the long-term benefits of education, but now many actively don’t care even when it is suggested there might be some.

I’m just about the last teacher in the school who regularly eats lunch in the dining hall; when there is a production on, there is no staff table on the stage, so I sit with the masses. It yields insights into what children are preoccupied with when they think no teacher is listening. Much is the usual small stuff of their lives, though turbo-charged by the technology and pampering available to them. But I am left with the feeling that a life of the mind is utterly lacking from what most of them do. Active thought is an alien process.

It seems we cannot rely on many homes to help cultivate it, and few have hobbies. Or else the distractions are just too great. Most of these children seem obsessed with the trappings of ostentatious wealth, and I can only assume this too comes from home. This is in sharp contrast to my own school experience, where there was at least an implicit acceptance among most of the importance of learning.

It’s a moot point how troubled we should be about this. As I said, children were probably always like this to some extent. But the problem is, the educational establishment does not realise it. It holds a view of children as miniature postgraduates who spend their waking hours hungering to be taught, thirsting for knowledge, who will always go the extra mile, and who should not under any circumstances be held back by those miserable failures of teachers. Particularly those who don’t stick to approved form, in the forlorn hope of trying to snare their pupils’ absent enthusiasm. And then it blames the teachers for failing. Experiences like those recounted here make me wonder whether we should take any notice at all of what children say when asked about their learning; mostly, they just don’t get it.

I had an inquest with the class who failed the test. I tried to explain to them why they needed to take their learning a bit more seriously as they grew up, and why developing their ability to think was important. I looked out over a sea of blank, indifferent faces, and they scarpered as soon as they could at the end of the lesson.

But I hope that somewhere, I did spark a few thoughts that might just linger. I increasingly suspect that these children have never been given any reason to find intrinsic interest in learning. There are few role models at home – and the education system itself is now more concerned with getting them to jump through performance hoops than inculcating a genuine love of learning. Maybe we need to do a lot more of the latter: stop talking about targets and employability and wealth and just start encouraging them to find things interesting. Maybe the seed is not really absent, but simply has never germinated – their every want is catered for without the need to think, or be curious about anything at all. It may take unconventional approaches like authentic stories about guns at 3 a.m. to awaken it.

Maybe this is why so many children seem utterly incurious – that and rapidly-acquired familial wealth that has only shrunk horizons, and turned the world into little more than the storehouse for their designer fantasies.

Learned helplessness can be serious! I sense that something is wrong: these kids come from affluent homes and have good brains. They go to a very good school; they should have everything going for them – and yet all we see, far too often, is indolence. They want for nothing – and we hold them at gun-point to achieve educationally. All it has done is make them passive and incurious. They know how to do nothing for themselves.

The second class wanted to know what I had been doing on that train; I explained that in the early Nineties I spent several holidays backpacking round post-communist Europe. Their eyes grew wider; I remembered hearing about the then-new Inter-Rail Pass with excitement when I was at school.

A hand went up. “Why would you want to do that?”

“What, help those Japanese people?”

“No. Go backpacking round Europe.”


3 thoughts on “Gun point

  1. Their comment about backpacking round Europe made me smile. When I have mentioned such activities to my pupils, they find it incomprehensible that someone would want to travel around on public transport (for many of my pupils, their parents do not even let them travel on a school bus, let alone go on a train by themselves) and stay in youth hostels instead of 5 star hotels, even when I point out that, for a young person, youth hostels are actually better as you get to meet other people more easily and they have games rooms and other facilities for young people. What I find strange is that these same pupils will happily go off to Morocco or Bolivia on character building expeditions, camping out and living rough for a week or so, but turn their noses up at spending a holiday backpacking closer to home. When I went backpacking, I never once thought of it as an expedition to build up my character or resilience or whatever. I did it because I wanted to learn more about other countries and thought it seemed a fun and affordable way to go about it!

    • Maybe it is just that Europe isn’t exciting enough any more. But I wonder how many of those character-building expeditions are organised for them? That’s my experience.

      My wider sense is of the death of curiosity – so long as everything needed for a pampered life turns up on the doorstep, why think any more about it? Same reason (finances not being an issue for many of ours) why quite a lot intend to live at home while attending university.

      Thanks for your comment.

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